Why You Need Dietary Fiber

You know how you sometimes have a topic that seems to follow you around for a couple of days?  Several people mention it to you, you keep seeing it on the news, or a TV commercial keeps popping up?  I felt that way about dietary fiber this week, so obviously that meant I was supposed to write about it today!

I found myself telling people all week that they needed to add more fiber to their diet.  There are many reasons why your body needs dietary fiber.

Fiber is the stuff in food that can’t be broken down in our digestion.  It is found only in plant foods.  There are two kinds, soluble and insoluble, and both are important.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into kind of a gel (like what happens to oatmeal when you cook it).  It not only absorbs water, but it soaks up other stuff too.  We’ll talk about that in a minute.  Insoluble fiber doesn’t absorb water, it provides bulk to stools and keeps you regular.

Why is dietary fiber important?  Let’s review 5 reasons.  If you can think of more, please comment at the end!

Dietary fiber keeps you regular

I’ve only experienced constipation once in my life and BOY was it uncomfortable!  Unless you have a medical cause for your constipation (like hypothyroidism or narcotic pain medicine use) in which you have to find and fix the cause, the treatment of choice for constipation is increased dietary fiber.

Both soluble and insoluble fiber help with bowel function.  Neither of them are absorbed in the digestion.  Insoluble fiber provides bulk and sweeps intestinal contents along.  Soluble fiber absorbs water and keeps stool soft and easier to pass.

Dietary fiber absorbs toxins

As I’ve written before, your liver is a workhorse for detoxifying stuff that you eat and drink.  After processing, the toxins are put into bile which then goes into the intestine.

Once in the intestine, one of two things can happen to the toxin.  It can be bound to dietary fiber, which keeps it harmless and takes it out in the stool.  Or it can be reabsorbed in the colon (which really functions to reabsorb water but can reabsorb lots of stuff with the water).

Being reabsorbed is really not what we want to happen to the toxic stuff in our intestine that the liver worked so hard to get rid of.

Dietary fiber lowers cholesterol

One of the other things that dietary fiber can absorb in the intestine is cholesterol.  Soluble fiber absorbs both cholesterol from the food we eat and also cholesterol the liver has put in the intestine.  Cholesterol is a major component of bile salts, a soapy substance that helps to break down dietary fat into little droplets that are easier to digest.

The bile salts can stick to the soluble fiber and be taken out in the stool.  This lowers the total amount of cholesterol in the body and helps to bring blood cholesterol levels down.  We’ll talk in a minute about what foods to eat to get more fiber in the diet.

Dietary fiber helps you lose weight

Yay for fiber!  By adding bulk without calories to your meals, dietary fiber keeps you full longer and suppresses appetite.  Also, high-fiber plant foods tend to be very nutrient-dense meaning they are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants without adding a lot of calories.

Dietary fiber feeds your intestinal bacteria

It turns out that the healthy bacteria in the intestine depend on dietary fiber for their food.  The types of bacteria in your intestine are heavily influenced by what foods you eat.  Eat a lot of “meat and potatoes” and you get one type of bacteria.  Eat a lot of plant foods rich in dietary fiber and you get a much healthier and more beneficial panel of microorganisms in the bacteria.

Think of your intestinal bacteria as travelers or tourists staying in your home.  If you want the right kind of visitors, you have to feed them what they like to eat.  Starve them and they will leave, and a different type of bacteria will move in.

Have I convinced you that dietary fiber is important?  Hope so, LOL!  Now let’s talk about how to get enough fiber.  First it’s helpful to find out how much fiber you’re taking in already.  There are lots of calorie trackers out there but my favorite is My Fitness Pal.  Not only does it tell you how many calories you’re eating, but it will tell you how many carbs, protein, fat grams and fiber grams you’re getting.

You don’t have to track forever, just long enough to get a baseline.  I recommend everyone gradually increase their fiber intake until they’re getting 30 grams of fiber per day or more.

How can you do that?  The best way is by eating more fiber-containing foods.  Some examples are oatmeal, whole grain bread products, beans, brown rice, and fresh fruits and veggies.  Make sure to add fiber slowly over several weeks to meet your goal, and drink plenty of water.

Some people who can’t get a lot of fiber (because they take Coumadin and aren’t able to eat a variety of fresh fruits and green leafy vegetables, for instance) need a fiber supplement.  This is OK, just make sure your supplement doesn’t contain artificial food ingredients (like Splenda or NutraSweet) and add it VERY slowly to avoid cramping and gas.  Not sure what brand is best?  Click here to see my recommendation.

Getting enough dietary fiber is very important, and not just to avoid constipation.  It helps maintain healthy weight and blood cholesterol levels, supports the hard work your liver does every day, and keeps your intestinal bacteria happy and healthy.  It’s not difficult to get dietary fiber, just add lots of fresh plant foods to your diet and you’ll see a huge difference in no time.

QUESTION: Do you struggle to get enough fiber in your diet?  Do you even think about how much fiber you’re getting?

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